Let’s consider this one of my efforts to ditch this unwillingness to talk about sex.

I interviewed Arvin Alvarez and AJ Osmeña, the owners of sex-toy shop Ilya, for FHM Philippines back in mid-2017. We had a fun chat about Filipinos’ sex hangups, the business end of sex toys, and these toys’ less-known benefits for couples.

Unfortunately, the edited and published article is gone — the website closed in 2018. Read the original article I turned in below.

Playtime and Beyond

Talking about sex and sex toys with Ilya

by KC Calpo

There are some things to be said about sex talk in the morning — especially when you’re having that normally taboo conversation with Arvin Alvarez and AJ Osmeña of online sex-toy shop Ilya. It was refreshing to utter aloud words like penis, vagina, masturbators, vibrators, and dildos without looking around to see if anyone in the coffee shop is eavesdropping. So was not lowering our voices in instant shame, or resorting to euphemisms to get our points across.

Sex is sex, and we here at FHM have no problems writing about it (and you, reading it and maybe putting our tips into practice). But it’s an entirely different situation if we’re talking about it in public, or actually going out there to buy toys. Generally, we’re pretty tight-lipped, and the stigma on toys is still strong as ever.

Enter Ilya.

Someone started a joke…

Back in January 2016, Osmeña and Alvarez dared each other to go 30 days straight without lying. “We both failed,” Alvarez laughed. “Ang consequence sa akin, punta sa isang (sex toy) shop, then bili lang ng anything,” with the notion that it was just going to be a fun way to see “cute stuff”.

As Alvarez remembered, the experience was uncomfortable even before they even got in, and overwhelming once they did. Aside from the self-consciousness we all feel upon stepping into a sex-toy shop, she couldn’t find the products she had in mind. Instead, there were “replicas of people’s real penises and vaginas”, and some of the products were of dubious quality. Worse, Osmeña said the shop they went to had a pharmacy-like vibe, and the saleslady didn’t even bother to attend to them.

‘Bakit hindi tayo gumawa ng sa atin na sex-toy shop?’

Arvin Alvarez

It was the retail equivalent of blue balls: their expectations outmatched reality. And they weren’t having it. “Nag-joke siya [Osmeña], ‘bakit hindi tayo gumawa ng sa atin na sex-toy shop? Cool yun!’” Alvarez said. The objectives: sell highly rated, body-safe, and reliable toys without bombarding customers; and take away the judgment associated with different sexual kinks.

Just three months later, they went to China for an adult health expo, where they met with the major brands they had already looked up. “I think doon ko narealize na hindi [na] siya joke,” Alvarez recalled. “Even if it was whimsical, starting a sex-toy shop, it’s not!” They got down to business, doing more research and rating potential products through a rigid points system. They also consulted with a variety of people — their former school professors, medical professionals, the local BDSM community, and even religious groups — for their advice regarding tricky topics and situations.

Toys for everyone

Today, Ilya is busy building a following and racking up sales. The duo made sure their shop carries products for varying experiences and interests, so whether you’re just starting out or looking for something new to try, you’ll find something in their store.

To take the stress out of choosing and comparing on your own, Ilya uses several product categories (e.g., Beginners, Bachelorettes/Bachelors, Best-Sellers, etc.), and includes a short quiz in its homepage that selects toys based on your needs and level of curiosity. But there are also specific items that regularly make it from cart to checkout. For men, the most purchased toys are the sleeve-like Tenga eggs, “disposable eggs for one-time use… that you put at the base of your penis [to masturbate], and which expand up to 12 inches,” Osmeña said. “So although it looks small, it’s definitely not.”

There’s also the Fun Factory Cobra Libre, a penile masturbator that Alvarez says requires a learning curve and an adventurous mindset. Instead of pumping, you leave it on and let the two motors and their vibrations do the build-up for you. For more cautious dudes, Osmeña mentioned Tickler’s adjustable Buddy erection holder, which “don’t intimate guys”, whatever your size.

For the ladies, Tickler’s bullet vibrators — shaped like lipsticks or small accessories — sell out quickly. 100% waterproof and rechargeable rabbit vibrators, G-spot vibrators and dildos from brands like Svakom and Lelo are also popular. Couples normally go for Ilya’s WeVibe toys, which enable them to play even while apart, thanks to an included remote, and syncing with the WeVibe app for those in long-distance relationships. The store’s vibrating cock rings are also a hit for couples.

As for the toys they wish more people would try, Alvarez and Osmeña recommend those that help them do pelvic-floor exercises or Kegels. Not only would they have something new to try in bed and improve their muscle control, but these toys also help women avoid prolapse, and men, problems such as incontinence and erectile dysfunction.

They want more comfortable buyers to try out the Njoy Pure Wand, a stainless-steel toy that can be used to hit either the G-spot and prostate, and for temperature play. The toy also requires you to rock it instead of thrusting, great for those looking for another way to get theirs. Anal toys and BDSM toys like the 50 Shades Adrenaline Spikes (which they fondly call ‘pizza cutters’ due to its appearance) are also on their list of recommendations for both beginners and more daring customers.

It’s not just about sexytime

…we all have our issues, sex-related and otherwise. The biggest is our unwillingness to talk about sex.

Or just selling toys, for that matter. Alvarez and Osmeña have made it a point to provide their customers with helpful guides and infographics. Whether it’s shopping for your very first toy or buying one for your partner, and picking which lube to use with your new toyfriend, they’ve put together vital information into colorful and shareable infographics. Ilya’s Tips and Tricks section provides more detailed explanations for certain products and categories.

Yet we all have our issues, sex-related and otherwise. The biggest is our unwillingness to talk about sex. “We were sure that we wanted to be ‘in the light’,” Alvarez explained. This involves openly promoting the shop online, and working with influencers in different fields (e.g., art, travel) to normalize conversations about sex. They also fill Ilya’s website and social media accounts with hilarious puns and easy-to-read text so customers won’t be as overwhelmed as they were last year.

Alvarez and Osmeña are always open to talking with their customers to find out what product their truly need; and are as happy as you are when you and/or your partner are happy. One of their male customers thanked them for helping him and his wife find a toy that made their sex life more satisfying. “It’s so fun, trying to figure out what would fit the individual or the couple,” Alvarez said. “[It’s] intimacy with someone, or with yourself.”

However, some issues will take more time, like the judgment we pass on others and ourselves when it comes to bedroom and toy preferences. “There’s no one size naman… whatever works for you, as long as it’s safe, consensual and responsible, great,” Osmeña said. Nor are sex toys age-specific. One OB-GYN they consulted with noted that older couples will benefit from these toys as alternatives, especially those suffering from arthritis or other physical disabilities.

Then there’s the minefield that is romantic and sexually active young(ish) relationships. “A lot of people feel that because they’re having sex, they don’t need to explore… so all others, masturbation, self-discovery, whatever, di na kailangan yun. That’s sad,” Osmeña said. “Sex is improved exponentially by self-exploration, especially with your partner.”

“And what we also say is okay, kung couple kayo, if you’re having a hard time talking about sexual things… bring a toy in, you’ll have to talk,” Alvarez added.

Some feel that a sex toy would make them less important in the relationship. According to Alvarez, customers would comment ‘hindi, masaya naman kami eh’ or ‘kaya ko ng sarili ko’. Osmeña also said that some guys insist they’re more than enough for their girlfriends. And this goes both ways: there are women who feel insecure because they can’t do exactly what a male masturbator does, or worry that their boyfriends won’t be interested in them anymore.

So how should they go about it? “Reassure your partner [that the toy is not a replacement],” Alvarez said. And if one party likes a toy a bit too much? Bring the toy to bed with you, and invite your partner to experiment with you. “It reflects of that lang, that both of you are not experimenting together. You’re exploring more when you’re alone.” They agree that communication is key, and that other underlying relationship issues may have nothing to do at all with the toy.

Moving forward

If and when you decide to buy a sex toy, the Ilya team have a few words of advice. First: ask them as many questions as you want, and don’t be afraid to be up front with what you want to try out or explore further. Otherwise, they can’t suggest the most suitable toyfriend for you. If you’re uncomfortable with telling strangers about your curiosities, do extensive research first and take it from there.

Alvarez also noted that the first toy shouldn’t involve a massive expense. “Let’s start with something that doesn’t call for 100% commitment,” she said. “We usually start with the bullets, external toys and disposables… then we’ll see if that’s good for you.” The price tags for these starters hover at around ₱1,000. “If you’re unsure, let’s go basic, let’s go safe,” Osmeña said, adding that if customers spend too much on a toy that doesn’t deliver, they would be discouraged, and it would be a disservice on Ilya’s part.

On the business end, Ilya has several plans for this year and in the coming ones. Like their customers, Alvarez and Osmeña view Ilya and sex-ed as an ongoing process. They’re working on putting up a physical storefront in Quezon City to complement their online shop. Look out as well for sex-ed workshops with the same fun energy as their website, as well as more partnerships with influencers and communities. ⦾